Known for her award-winning documentary One Child Nation, the fearless Nanfu Wang returns to the screens with one of the century’s most relevant documentaries In the Same Breath. Releasing it a year after the onset of the COVID-19 virus, In the Same Breath vividly relives everything—from our last taste of normalcy to our first sip of pandemic terror.
Opening with a festive and colorful Wuhan celebrating the new year in 2020, the film recalls the last moments of mask-less life before the Chinese government made an announcement that changed the world in a snap: “Eight people were punished for spreading rumors about an unknown pneumonia.” Wang, at the time, was also in China with her child visiting her mother, oblivious that an outbreak is quietly unfolding.
When Wang had to fly back to the US for a business trip and left her son with her mother in China, Wuhan announced a lockdown. Eventually, Wang was able to bring her son back to the US but the experience prompted her to get to the bottom of what was really happening. As she did with One Child Nation, she peels off the layers of a glamorous cover-up to reveal such an inconvenient truth. As she states, “When the government is telling us where to look, they’re also telling us where not to look.” It’s not hard to imagine how much we’re living in George Orwell’s 1984, where modern history is being “rewritten” by people in power to gain more control.
One of the important points of the documentary is how information control had to be done in the event of a deadly crisis. In effect, this made the virus deadlier than it already is. A devastating watch, the Chinese news continues to romanticize how they’ve “won” against the virus while their social media presents otherwise: people are dying in the streets; hospitals are overwhelmed, and access to healthcare is a luxury. In the event, Wang also managed to get direct accounts from China by employing people to film inside hospitals. It clearly shows the opposite of the “positivity” portrayed by the local media. However, while social media could’ve been maximized to call for help, the government learned how to control information further by deleting social media posts, asking people not to film, and asking them to take footage down.
It’s with these portraits of extreme information control that Wang starts to make her audience wonder if the crisis can be handled effectively if freedom of speech wasn’t an issue. Shifting her gaze on the US, it turns out that the answer is not so different from what she experienced in China. As Trump treats the novel coronavirus as just the normal flu at its early stages, the preparation for an outbreak wasn’t prioritized. It slowed the potential for good disaster response. Eventually, the US shared the same fate as China; the death toll rose and precautionary measures had to be implemented to contain the virus. But it didn’t end there. Upon the implementation of wearing masks and staying at home to fight the virus, American protestors felt threatened and went to the streets to fight for their liberty. When these protest videos were watched by American nurses, who had firsthand experiences of how tragic the virus is, they couldn’t help but shed tears.
Being a Chinese native and an American immigrant, Wang had the opportunity to compare and contrast two pandemic responses and concluded how the virus became a test of government. American protestors fighting to be mask-free and Chinese broadcasters saying the same exact lines, “China’s superior system” illustrates a portrait of a system having too much freedom and having too much control. The film’s brave magnification of both undisciplined freedom and suffocating restriction is enough to make us rethink how much should we believe and trust those people in power. Riveting but painful, Wang wraps up the documentary with such a stand-out line: “I can clearly imagine how this could have gone differently.”
In The Same Breath is streaming on HBO.